How to choose the right engineering career in construction, by a graduate fire engineer

Last updated: 21 Jun 2023, 15:38

Many engineering students aren’t aware of the full range of engineering jobs in the construction industry. We interviewed Paul Matthews, a fire engineer at Mott MacDonald, to find out why he chose his.

Paul Mott Macdonald

I listed the aspects from my work experience that I did and did not enjoy.

When targetjobs caught up with the graduate recruitment team at Mott MacDonald, we talked about the many students who ask at careers fairs ‘how do I choose the right engineering career or discipline for me?’ and about the fact that many students haven’t even heard of the full range of engineering jobs available in the construction industry.

For this reason, we decided to speak to a graduate engineer working within one of these lesser known roles to discover more about it and to gain advice on how they chose the right job for them. Paul Matthews, a fire engineer at Mott MacDonald with an MEng in mechanical engineering from the University of Edinburgh, volunteered.

Does the role of fire engineer require different skills from other engineering roles?

As fire engineering spans a range of engineering specialisms, you must hone your skills in other engineering disciplines such as structural, architectural, mechanical, and electrical to name but a few.

Having a firm technical ability is important in the art of fire engineering. However, interpersonal skills and creativity are crucial when it comes to negotiating a design with a client to fulfil their aspirations and comply with building regulations. The more elaborate the design, the more invaluable it is to have these skills at your disposal.

Would you recommend the job?

I would definitely recommend fire engineering as a future career, particularly to those who are torn between pursuing a heavily technical-based role and becoming a consultant. The nature of fire-engineering forces you to be technically sound in tandem with interpersonal and negotiating skills to deliver the best design to your clients.

So how did you first get interested in fire engineering?

At university, I was offered a fire engineering elective module in my final year, the content of which was enough for me to segue from a career in mechanical engineering to fire engineering.

How did you choose the graduate engineering jobs to apply to?

When choosing jobs, I tried to draw parallels between the job descriptions and my previous work experience. I listed the aspects from my work experience that I did and did not enjoy, and saw which job description was best suited to me. I think that by doing this, your CV will tailor itself to the job, giving the confidence to a prospective employer that you have researched the role, and make you more suitable for interview.

What did your previous work experience tell you about what you enjoyed?

I had undertaken a summer placement as an assistant project manager with a construction contractor. This summer placement helped me to understand the construction industry at grass roots level. It has given me a better understanding of how contractors operate and their particular requirements.

I had also been a product engineer with an electronics company, as a result of a module that I had particularly enjoyed at university and thought it was a career I could pursue. This experience was great, but it helped me to realise that I did not want to be too involved with computer-aided engineering. I next did an internship with an automotive company. It was fantastic: extremely technical and very interesting. However, the nature of the automotive industry means that there is essentially zero client contact. This is to prevent any competitor companies discovering each other’s technologies. Though I understand the reasoning behind this, I felt that I was better suited to a role where I would have a more client-facing role.

How did you choose your employer?

I hadn’t completed a summer placement or internship at Mott MacDonald, but I had some course mates who had. All of them enjoyed their time with the company. Having researched the company in detail, I was impressed with the range of sustainability and development projects that it carries out across the world. Furthermore, it was apparent that Mott MacDonald employees valued their work/life balance, something which I consider to be the most important factor when choosing a career.

Would you advise students to take the same approach?

Yes. Identify similarities between what you have enjoyed and felt best-suited to in previous work experiences and courses from university. In my opinion, this is the most effective way to help choose between job roles.

So what does your graduate fire engineering job really involve?

I support the design of buildings with respect to fire, in terms of both life safety and property protection, by using proven, fire-engineered solutions and methods. I develop ‘fire strategies’: documents detailing the life safety systems, firefighting provisions, and any fire-engineered solutions required to meet the overarching design goals while complying with building regulations. This involves regular contact with the client and design team, any associated site visits, and office-based report writing.

An example of a fire engineering method would be to compare the available exit time with the required exit time for occupants. This is assessed by simulating a fire within a building. Depending on the complexity of the building, this could be a MS Excel-based exercise, or may require a more advanced computational fluid dynamics software package. A fire engineer can then determine if and when the atmosphere becomes untenable. This can be run alongside pedestrian modelling software, to establish how long occupants will take to evacuate.

What projects have you worked on?

In the two years I’ve been here, I’ve worked on a variety of projects, ranging from schools and offices to sports stadia and megamalls. The work is split between the UK, the Middle East and, most recently, Mauritius. When working on overseas projects, I am usually based in the UK but a particular highlight was a business trip to Bahrain. This was a fantastic opportunity to meet overseas clients and colleagues with whom I had only corresponded with via phone or email. I was able to visit one of my project sites – a shopping mall refurbishment – to see how my work would shape the design over the coming years. Additionally, it was a chance to see a part of the world, and experience a culture, that otherwise I might not have done.

Have your responsibilities grown?

Yes, they have grown significantly. This is predominantly in the form of ownership of work, in that I have been given more freedom as to how I approach a particular problem, as there is no one-size-fits-all solution in fire engineering. I have much more client exposure, corresponding and meeting with architects on a regular basis. Looking back, I was treated as a valued and contributing member from day one – but because of this there was a steep, albeit supported, learning curve at the beginning. My team has 12 full-time employees, ranging from graduate to associate level.

Do you still receive training?

I am regularly enrolled in a number of continuing professional development (CPD) courses. Some courses are chosen by the company and my line manager, but I am able to choose some of my own to help direct and develop my own career path. I am currently on track to become chartered through the Institution of Fire Engineering.

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